By Michael Leonardi
According to recent reports from the nuclear watchdog Beyond Nuclear and several Great Lakes environmental organizations, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is up to its usual practices as an industry captured agency. Collusion and flagrant cover-ups at the Davis Besse nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Erie and at the Palisades nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Michigan have drawn the ire of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) who have called on the NRC’s investigator general to investigate NRC region 3 practices and motivations of the NRC in allowing these plants to operate with grave safety concerns.
With respect to Davis Besse it seems like a flashback to the 2002 hole in the reactor head incident as part of the history of this nuclear nightmare between Toledo and Cleveland on the western Lake Erie basin. In 2003, the NRC’s chairman resigned after the General Accounting Office found the agency guilty of collusion with plant operator FirstEnergy in their attempts to cover-up the seriousness of corrosion issues that brought Davis Besse within 3/16ths of an inch of a core containment breach and catastrophic release of radioactivity.
Then Representative Kucinich led the call of the Inspector General’s office as he is once again after FirstEnergy and the NRC have colluded to downplay the seriousness of widespread cracking that has been discovered over the past year throughout the concrete shield building that houses the Davis Besse reactor.
According to some alarming revelations found in NRC documents revealed through a Freedom of Information Act filing by Kevin Kamps at Beyond Nuclear, NRC investigators have serious reservations as to whether the Davis Besse shield building could withstand even minor seismic activity and admit that even before the widespread cracking was discovered that the shield building was never designed “for containment accident pressure and temperature.”
This means that, even when brand new and un-cracked, Davis Besse’s shield building was not capable of preventing catastrophic radioactivity releases during a reactor core meltdown. An inner steel containment vessel, a mere 1.5 inches thick when brand new, would thus be the last line of defense.
However, the environmental intervenors have un-earthed NRC and FirstEnergy documents showing that the steel containment vessel has suffered significant corrosion over the past several decades due to infiltrating and standing chemically “aggressive” groundwater in the “sand bed” region surrounding the bottom of the containment vessel (which has also degraded the shield building’s underground “moisture barrier”), as well as due to an acidic borated water leak from the refueling channel near the top of the containment vessel.
The coalition of environmental and citizens groups fighting the relicensing of Davis Besse has pointed to a 1982 study, Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences (CRAC-2), commissioned by the NRC, to show how bad the casualties and property damage would be downwind and downstream of a catastrophic radioactivity release which escapes Davis Besse’s corroded inner steel containment vessel and cracked outer shield building. CRAC-2 lists the following consequences at Davis-Besse: 1,400 Peak Early Fatalities; 73,000 Peak Early Injuries; 10,000 Peak Cancer Deaths, and $84 billion in property damage. However, CRAC-2 was based on 1970 U.S. Census data.
As reported by Jeff Donn at the Associated Press in summer 2011, populations around U.S. nuclear power plants have “soared” in the past 42 years, meaning those casualty figures near Davis Besse would likely now be much worse. And, when adjusted for inflation from 1982-dollar figures, property damage would today surmount $187 billion in 2010-dollar figures.
According to the environmental coalition’s attorney Terry Lodge, "What we have established from NRC's own documents is that there are two Nuclear Regulatory Commissions: some hard-working, intelligent people who set out to find out the truth of these very dangerous technical problems and their causes, and a political class in the agency that is dedicated to pulling the plug on any investigation that threatens utility profits, above all else. The search for truth about the shield building had to be cut off because it went too close to the cash cow."
Michael Keegan of Don’t Waste Michigan in Monroe stated: "These multiple crackings, complete with concrete degradation of the shield containment building, are but a metaphor for the entire dilapidated Davis Besse atomic reactor. This reactor is running on borrowed time, propped up on stilts by a captured regulator that is now under investigation for doing so."
Kevin Kamps, of national watchdog Beyond Nuclear in Takoma Park, Maryland stated: “NRC staff and management, both at its national headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, as well as its Region 3 office outside Chicago, worked long hours, during evenings, on weekends, and even through the Thanksgiving holiday, in order to rubber stamp reactor restart approval at Davis Besse in a great big hurry, despite countless unanswered questions and unresolved concerns about the shield building cracking.”
As regards to the chronically leaking Palisade’s nuclear reactor located on the shores of Lake Michigan in southwest Michigan, the NRC’s investigator general is conducting an investigation into why recently resigned NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko was kept in the dark, along with the public, about a leak of Safety Injection Refueling Water from a storage tank into buckets in the control room when he was on a visit to the facility before meeting with nuclear watchdogs and environmentalists back in May of this year.
This investigation was called for by Congressman Markey after it was revealed that ongoing safety issues were covered-up by the Entergy owned Palisades even while a tour of the plant was in act. Palisades has a terrible record of leaks, mishaps and accidents, some of which were outlined in this 2010 report Headaches at Palisades: Broken Seals & Failed Heals, by the Union of Concerned Scientist’s David Lochbaum. Most recently on Aug. 12 Palisades was shut down for a leak of radioactive and acidic primary coolant, escaping from safety-critical control rod drive mechanisms attached to its degraded lid, atop what is considered by the NRC itself to be most embrittled reactor pressure vessel in the U.S.
Palisades’ operator Entergy is also in the habit of periodically releasing radioactive steam into the area due to reoccurring electrical accidents most recently in September of 2011. This steam may be a contributing factor to the fact that the area around South Haven is considered a cancer cluster by medical researchers from the state of Michigan Health department.
Jaczko was the subject of what Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) called a witch hunt by politically motivated commissioners angered at the fact that Jaczko had helped to mothball the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and resigned in June. A December 2011 article by Andrew Cockburn, provides an overview of the politically motivated actions at an NRC that has clearly distinguished itself to be nothing more than a regulatory agency under complete control by an industry always willing to put profit margins above any considerations of health, public safety or property values. As Kevin Kamps was quoted as saying in this article in regards to Jaczko “He’s not ‘our guy’ by any means, he has voted to re-license plants that should probably be shut down, but he does care about safety, in ways that the others do not.” It was also well put by distinguished journalist Karl Grossman, when he said “Jaczko was insufficiently pro nuclear.”
One of the NRC commissioners responsible forcing out Jaczko was Commissioner William Ostendorff. Ostendorff reportedly threw a temper tantrum at the NRC calling on the NRC’s Investigator General to halt her investigation into the cover-up at Palisades calling it a waste of taxpayer dollars. Now Ostendorff finds himself under investigation for impeding an investigation. Ostendorff is an explicit representation of how the NRC operates as a captured agency through orchestrated industry deception.
The story of the NRC and nuclear regulation in the U.S. is one of corruption and collusion at the whim of industry dictates. Rep. Kucinich, along with Rep. Markey and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) are some of the few voices of credibility in the wilderness of congressional complacency and acquiescence to the profit driven desires of an industry driven by the vast mythology of the “peaceful atom” that has been perpetrated by decades of propaganda from the likes of the industry front group the Nuclear Energy Institute. Corporations like Exelon, GE, FirstEnergy, Entergy and their political escorts that prop them up from the White House and throughout the halls of Congress continue to allow the operation of 104 reactors across the U.S.
Obama has surrounded himself with nuclear industry advisors and cabinet members as part of his nuclear powered White House. Meanwhile members of Congress like Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who’s district includes Palisades and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) who resides over the district that includes Davis Besse give carte blanche to the NRC, Entergy and FirstEnergy putting what they define as “good jobs” and “economic partnership” over any concerns of health and safety for their constituents or for the entire Great Lakes ecosystem.
In regards to the cases of Palisades and Davis Besse, Rep. Kucinich stated “I can’t say the cases are related, but the similarities between these two investigations are troubling. In Michigan, an effort to determine why a radioactive leak was kept from the Chairman of NRC may have been undermined. In Ohio, we witnessed agency officials give public statements that varied dramatically from what engineers had told my staff. I cannot determine what caused this change in the answers of these Region III engineers, but I am concerned that it was in response to political pressure. I hope that the Inspector General is able to restore confidence in the NRC’s ability to provide effective oversight of our nation’s nuclear power plants.”
This is a confidence that for many citizens that have been following culture of collusion and corruption at the NRC since its inception has never existed.
Jaczko has now been hunted out and replaced by Allison Macfarlane who has so far decided to keep her head in the sand when it comes to the political motivations of the NRC and its cosiness with the nuclear industry that it purports to regulate. The commissioners responsible for Jaczko’s demise remain. When asked about the perception of the NRC being a captured agency at a recent press conference Macfarlane feigned ignorance, or maybe it is that she is truly ignorant that this perception exists. If she wants to “restore confidence” as Kucinich puts it or “build public confidence in the agency by improving communication and increasing transparency” as she put it, she better get on top of the ongoing investigations of her own Inspector General very quickly. The reality that the NRC is now regulating based on deception and lies does not bode well for her attempts to build public confidence.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) recently referred to NRC commissioner Bill Magwood as a “treacherous, miserable liar,” referring to questions regarding Magwood’s support for a nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain. This repository was considered to be geologically inadequate by former chairman Jaczko and the new chair Allison Macfarlane until she jumped into the political playing field and said she would keep an open mind about the Yucca Mountain repository during her senate confirmation hearing.
Macfarlane is a geologist and expert on radioactive waste chosen at a time when the unsolvable problem of high level radioactive waste has come to the forefront once again and threatens to block any future relicensing of nuclear plants. As another in the long line of myth perpetrators Macfarlane wants to assure the American people that a safe geological storage site to keep high level radioactive waste safe and sound for more than 100,000 years is surely possible if Congress has the political will to make it happen. So far there has been no solution to high level radioactive waste discovered anywhere by anyone in the world, until even a myth of a solution comes from the lips of Macfarlane wouldn’t it be prudent to shut down our 104 behemoth’s of poison and stop producing it?
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.